The big, the bad, the bold, and the beautiful

Climbers often use the words “magical,” “majestic,” and “monstrous” to describe the sea cliffs of the British Isles. Here, the exposure above the Atlantic’s dark, ferocious waters, the taste of the sea air, the cry of the gulls, and the feeling of isolation conspire to overwhelm the senses. The British Isles have a vast, diverse coastline stretching to over 8,000 miles, with 30-plus rock types, including limestone, granite, gneiss, quartzite, dolerite, sandstone, and pyroclastic breccia.

On these walls, you’ll find more than 10,000 routes, with opportunities to climb sport, traditional, and deep-water solo—often all at the same venue. Take the limestone cliffs of Swanage in sunny south England. Infinite Gravity (F8a+; 5.13c) in Blackers Hole, Ocean Boulevard (E3 5b; 5.10d) on Boulder Ruckle, and Freeborn Man (6c S1; 5.11b) at Conner Cove represent, respectively, the crème de la crème of these disciplines just a stone’s throw apart.

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The UK coast is home to some of the world’s oldest rocks. Until 80 million years ago, America and Eurasia were joined. Then volcanoes erupted in the middle of the super-continent. Magma forced the land apart, creating North America and Europe/the British Isles—and our coastline. This cooling lava formed the granite and gneiss encountered on the Cornish and Lewis sea cliffs, respectively. UK ethics are often strict, and some cliffs are “no bolts”; the wet, cold climate keeps visitors away, as do the abseil approaches. This is definitely not the French Riviera, with its bolt-studded limestone above balmy seas. Still, there are variances in climate and commitment, and you can climb anything from a single-pitch non-tidal route in 70-degree sunshine to a multi-pitch adventure with hanging belays in Baltic temps.

The almost-tropical Jurassic south coast of England offers a relaxing ambience, with inviting waters. Along these shores, you’ll encounter steep, juggy limestone at venues like Swanage and Portland. With cliffs that rise to over 160 feet covering grades from VS (5.4) to E8 (5.13) and the convenience of moderate sport routes at the more recently developed Portland, this venue has become popular. In late summer when the seas reach a staggering 70° F, deep-water soloists flock to the sparkling coves for big splashdowns and late-night parties.

“The best is in the West,” Cornish climbers say, and it’s the granite that oozes quality at the southwestern tip of England. Yellow lichens decorate the ledges and pillars of this remarkable textured rock, and when the winter sun warms the cliffs there is no better place. Vomiting sea birds, salt-corroded pegs, and the surging Atlantic swell all serve to heighten your awareness of the elements. The dramatic cliffs on iconic Land’s End are home to some of the hardest climbs in the area, and routes like the committing Atlantic Ocean Wall (E5 6b; 5.12a) lure in more adventurous teams. Sennen Cove, with its sun-bleached platforms, is a charming place full of steep, gymnastic routes on sculptured rock, and is famous for its abundance of easier lines, such as Demo Route (Hard Severe 4b; 5.7). Chair Ladder epitomizes Cornish multi-pitch climbing, with its well-known classic Diocese (VS 4c, 5a, 4a, 4b; 5.8). Spending hours strapped to the rock as waves thunder in allows the mind to drift, with nothing but the cries of the gulls and the sulfurous smell of seaweed for company.

Questing north, one encounters Wales, with its extensive Pembrokeshire coast. This area is packed with steep, challenging testpieces on bullet limestone. Hidden in the forbidding zawns (sea-etched caves or fissures) are some of the UK’s most sought-after lines, including John Dunne’s Big Issue (E9 6c; 5.13c R) on the magnificent Bosherston Head, Rock Idol (E1 5a; 5.10a) at Mother Carey’s Kitchen, and Pleasure Dome (E3 5c; 5.11a) at Stennis Head. Not surprisingly, many of the world’s top wads make the journey each year. Here, much of the hardest climbing is safe, as gear is plentiful and the falls are soft drops into space. This region experiences the second largest tidal range in the world—up to 50 feet—and in winter ferocious storms shift car-sized boulders. Back in 2004, an entire section of St. Govan’s Head collapsed into the sea, destroying Public Enemy, one of the area’s first E5s (5.12a’s). In the mornings, heavy mists often ebb into the coves, making conditions treacherous and moist.

North Wales, home to Gogarth and Rhoscolyn, is for the hardened trad climber. The often-friable quartzite requires tenacity and a cool head for finding the sparse gear. Gogarth’s main cliff soars to over 350 feet and has seen many generations of Britain’s best leave their mark. Tales of harrowing runouts, monster falls, and epic benightments are common. The 360-foot Gogarth (E1 5b; 5.10b) is the standout. It’s committing and exposed—and the hardest pitch is saved for last, a remarkable achievement by Baz Ingle and Martin Boysen back in 1964. In contrast, the nearby single-pitch cliffs of Rhoscolyn offer a tamer setting, with the opportunity to climb the 120-foot arch of Electric Blue (6b+ S2; 5.11a), a famed deep-water solo.

Just a boat ride away are the hidden treasures of Ireland. The Emerald Isle can remain cloaked in mist for days, but when the sun emerges there are few places better than Fairhead, just down from Belfast. Giant columns of hexagonal dolerite stand like ancient monuments. The fissures between these megalithic towers define world-class stamina-fests, often consuming an entire rack. Since the early 1960s, climbers have established some 400 routes over this three-mile stretch of cliff, which rises to 330 feet in parts. Yet the Irish climbing community is relatively small, so there is still much scope for development. Eventually, even the sturdiest of climbers will become worn down by Fairhead’s epic nature. It’s then that the sunny limestone platforms on the west-facing Burren cliffs sound good. The mighty 600-by-170-foot sweep of rock that includes the Mirror Wall projects straight into the Atlantic and is riddled with some of Earth’s finest finger cracks, including the 150-foot splitter The Cutter (E4 6a; 5.11c).

Then there are the remote Hebridean Islands off the far northwest coast of Scotland. The three-billion-year-old, razor-sharp Lewisian gneiss on the isles of Lewis and Pabbay is some of the oldest metamorphic rock on the planet. Eye-catching bands of pink pegmatite and quartz intrusions add to the exquisite color palette. The uninhabited Pabbay has over 400 routes, and the Lewis coastline in excess of 1,000. Untold numbers of unclimbed lines await for those who make the long journey. Sought-after routes include Pabbay’s Prophecy of Drowning (E2 5c; 5.10d) and Lewis’s monumental sea arch, The Prozac Link (E4 5c; 5.11b).

Dotted along the Scottish coastline rise sea stacks galore. Often, the only mode of approach is for the first person to swim and then rig a Tyrolean back to the mainland for the rest of the party. The most important stack is the 450-foot Old Man of Hoy (E1 5b; 5.10a), situated amongst the Orkney Islands just off the north coast. Seals, minke whales, and dolphins inhabit these cold, wild waters, and it’s a privilege to witness them whilst dangling above the ocean.

The crown jewel, though, lies on the remote island of Shetland, the most northerly of the British Isles. At the most developed area, Eshaness, volcanic pockets of pyroclastic breccia plaster the enormous cliffs, with nothing between you and Iceland but dark, open water. With more rock types than the rest of the islands put together, and a lifetime’s worth of unclimbed rock, Shetland is possibly the ultimate sea-cliff-climber’s paradise. Serious development only started here in 2010 and has been limited mainly to the lower grades, so plenty of new opportunities exist for the next generation.

Mike Hutton (mikehuttonimages.com) is a UK-based adventure photographer and writer. He specializes in capturing images of climbers in rarely visited landscapes.